Problem with a used car bought from a private seller

You bought a used car and just days later, it broke down. Your mechanic says the problem will cost a thousand dollars to repair. What can you do? Your options vary depending on many factors, including who you bought the car from. Learn your legal rights and options if you bought from a private seller. (If you bought from a car dealer, see this page.)  

What you should know 

When you’re not entitled to anything

When you buy a used car, you’re out of luck if any of the following apply:  

  • You’re just unhappy with how much you paid. In BC, there’s no cooling-off period once you’ve entered an agreement to buy a used vehicle. This means you won’t be able to cancel an agreement just because you changed your mind or because your situation has changed.

  • You inspected the vehicle and should have spotted the problem — for example, the car shuddered when you test drove it. The test of whether you should have spotted the problem is whether the average person would pick it up. 

  • You were told about the problem when you bought the vehicle and someone fully explained what it meant.

  • You caused the problem. 

When you can back out of the agreement

In BC, there’s no general legal right to return a vehicle once you’ve taken possession of it. But if there’s something wrong with the vehicleor with the way in which it was sold to you, you may be able to cancel the agreement. Read on to learn more.

When you buy a used vehicle from a private seller, certain conditions are implied under the law. 

  • The seller must have the right to sell the vehicle. They must also tell you if there are any liens against the vehicle. 

  • The vehicle must be as described by the seller.

  • The vehicle must be durable for a reasonable period of time.

These conditions are sometimes referred to as the legal warranty. They are established by this law. They apply whether the seller mentions them or not. They are in addition to any warranty the seller or manufacturer provide.

Waiving the legal warranty

The conditions that the vehicle be as described and reasonably durable can be waived for used goods. However, any attempt by the seller to have you waive these conditions must be done in clear and unambiguous language. As explained here, simply saying a car is being sold “as is” isn’t likely to be enough.

“Right to sell the vehicle,” “as described,” "reasonably durable." What do these conditions mean?

What does “right to sell the vehicle” mean?

A private seller must be legally allowed to sell the vehicle. This means they must have title to it, making them the rightful owner.

If the seller doesn’t have the right to sell the vehicle, they have breached the legal warranty. 

As well, a private seller must tell you if there are any liens against the vehicle. A lien is a legal claim made on someone else's property to make sure they pay a debt. For example, a bank that lends money to help someone buy a car may place a lien on the car in case the owner fails to repay the loan. If the owner doesn’t repay the loan, the car can be taken as payment.   

What does “as described” mean? 

The vehicle has to match the seller’s description in their advertising and any statements they made at or before the time of the sale. 

For example, if a seller’s ad says the vehicle has all-wheel drive, when in fact it doesn’t, the vehicle doesn’t match the description. The seller is breaking the legal promise to provide the vehicle as described.

What does “durable for a reasonable period of time” mean?

In the case of a used vehicle, not all that much. A used vehicle will not be expected to last as long as a new one. “Reasonable” durability will depend on many factors, including: 

  • the age and condition of the vehicle  

  • the price paid for it

  • the nature of the problem

  • the discoverability of the problem

  • the use of the vehicle after the purchase

If the engine fails completely a week after the purchase, with normal driving, that may very likely be a breach of the condition of durability, as we explain here. But not necessarily. For example, in one case an eight-year-old car with 140,000 kms, bought for $5,700, was found to be durable for a reasonable period of time even though its engine failed after one month of normal driving.

As vehicles age, they have more problems

The older a vehicle is and the more kilometres it has travelled, the more likely something will break down in the normal course of driving. Undetected problems that arise from the age, and regular wear and tear, of a used vehicle will not result in a breach of the implied warranty of durability.

The seller must not misrepresent the vehicle

In addition to the legal warranty, you’re protected from any misrepresentations about the vehicle. That is, the seller mustn’t tell you something about the vehicle that isn't true. This applies to their advertising and any statements they make at or before the time of the sale. For example, if you ask the seller whether the vehicle has been in an accident, and they say no, and it turns out they knew it had been in an accident, they have misrepresented the state of the vehicle.

In order to show misrepresentation, you need to show that: 

  • the seller made a representation that was untrue or misleading

  • they knew or should have known — the representation was untrue or misleading, and 

  • you relied on the misrepresentation in buying the vehicle.  

In showing the seller should have known their representation was untrue or misleading, you could say that:

  • they were reckless in making the representation — they casually made the claim without knowing it was true or false, or

  • they failed to use reasonable care to ensure the representation was accurate and not untrue or misleading.

Where a seller claims ignorance

It doesn’t cut it for a seller to simply say, “Hey, I didn’t know.” If they should have known something they said about the vehicle was untrue or misleading, that can be enough for it to be misrepresentation.

Understanding your options

If the seller has breached the legal warranty or misrepresented the vehicle, you have options:

  • You can ask for the seller to pay for any repairs. (Generally, you won’t be able to ask for a repair if it’ll cost more than what you paid for the vehicle.)

  • You can cancel the agreement, return the vehicle, and ask for your money back. Act immediately if you want to pursue this option. If you wait, it gets more difficult to prove that a fault is the cause of any problem, and not just normal wear and tear.   

  • You can ask for a discount if you still want the vehicle.

You’re also entitled to other expenses that “directly and naturally result” from any breach of the legal warranty or misrepresentation. For example, if you had to pay for the vehicle to be towed after it broke down, this would be an expense that directly and naturally resulted from the breach of the legal warranty. 

Work out the problem

Step 1. Decide what outcome you’re seeking

Once you understand your legal rights and options, decide what outcome you’re seeking. Do you want the vehicle repaired? Do you want to return the vehicle and get a refund? Is either outcome acceptable?

When you’re deciding whether you’d rather get a repair or a refund, think about whether the problem is likely to lead to bigger issues.

If the problem doesn’t need fixing (for example, there’s a problem with a feature you don’t use, say the radio), you might want to ask the seller for a discount instead.

Step 2. Contact the seller

Contact the seller as soon as you notice the problem.  

Clearly explain what’s wrong. Let them know you understand what you’re entitled to. Tell them the outcome you’re seeking. 

Depending on the situation, you might say something like this:

“Under the Sale of Goods Act, this vehicle should last for a reasonable period of time and be as described. My legal rights have been breached because the vehicle you sold me doesn’t meet these conditions. I’d like you to put this right by giving me a refund or repairing the vehicle at your cost.”

Take the time to think about any offers before accepting or rejecting them.

If there are discussions about getting the vehicle repaired, consider getting three quotes for the repair work. This may make you feel more comfortable than letting the seller choose someone. 

Keep a record of your conversations and correspondence. Make sure to get any oral agreements in writing.

Step 3. Send a complaint letter

If discussing the situation with the seller doesn’t resolve the problem, the next step is to send a complaint letter to the seller. We offer a tool you can use to help you build your letter. It includes legal terminology and may help the seller realize you know your rights. It's also available as a template letter you can download.

Keep a copy of the letter for yourself. If you can, send the letter by registered mail or courier. That way you will have proof the seller received  it.

If you still can’t solve the problem with the above steps, your next step may be to take legal action. Depending on the situation, you can consider suing the other party for breach of contract (pointing to the legal warranty) or misrepresentation

If your claim is for less than $5,000, you can bring it to the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is an online system designed to be used without the help of a lawyer. 

If your claim is for less than $35,000, you can sue in Small Claims Court. It’s faster and less complicated than suing in the British Columbia Supreme Court. You must bring your claim in Supreme Court if you're seeking over $35,000. 

If you decide to sue, note that there are time limitations on filing lawsuits. Depending on the situation, there are steps you can take to extend these time limits and preserve your rights.

A lawyer can explain your options and help you decide on the best course of action. If you don’t have a lawyer, there are options for free or low-cost legal help

A faster, cheaper option than court

For claims of under $5,000, you can apply to work out your dispute with the Civil Resolution Tribunal. As a tribunal, it's like a court, but less formal. It's entirely online, and designed to be used without a lawyer.

Common questions

Is there a return period or cancellation right in BC?

No. In BC, when you agree to buy a used vehicle, there’s no general legal right to cancel within a certain time period. But you still have legal options if, for example, the seller misrepresents the vehicle or the vehicle isn’t reasonably durable. See what you should know, above. 

What about lemon laws?

Canada doesn’t have “lemon laws” for faulty vehicles the way the United States has. Many US states have laws that give buyers legal options if they buy a vehicle that later turns out to be substantially defective, or a “lemon.” However, the legal warranty explained above is Canada’s key law that protects buyers who have problems with defective vehicles they’ve bought.

What if I have a manufacturer’s warranty?

When you bought the used vehicle, if it was still covered under the manufacturer’s warranty, you may be able to claim under that warranty to get any problems fixed. Any manufacturer’s warranty doesn’t affect your rights under the legal warranty.

What if I think the seller rolled back the odometer?

If an odometer is altered, disconnected, or replaced in order to mislead a buyer about the vehicle’s mileage, that’s called odometer fraud. It’s a criminal offence. It can also help prove a claim that the seller misrepresented the vehicle.  

Note that it’s not illegal to replace a damaged odometer. However, the odometer reading needs to be recorded before it is replaced or repaired.  

What if I bought from a seller who I think might be a curber?

A significant percentage of ads that look like they’re placed by private sellers are actually placed by curbers. A curber is someone who makes money selling vehicles but isn’t a licensed dealer. Anyone selling five or more vehicles per year is usually automatically deemed to be a car dealer under BC law. Someone selling fewer than five vehicles per year may still require a licence if they're selling vehicles for income. 

These tips on spotting a curber can help you figure out if you bought from a curber.

If you did buy a used vehicle from a curber and have a problem, often your only option is to take legal action. However, there is a way you can help future buyers. You can report the curber to the Vehicle Sales Authority of BC using their report a curber form. You may make the report anonymously.

Who can help

DIY problem-solving

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Civil Resolution Tribunal
Resolve disputes of less than $5,000 online 24/7 (no need for a lawyer!).

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in October 2022
  • Time to read: 10 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Mario Garcia, CarbonCure Technologies

Mario Garcia

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